Court processes: How driving offences are dealt with
How unpaid fines are enforced
What happens if I don’t pay my fine by the due date?
This section explains the different things the courts can do – like seizing your possessions or taking your pay or benefit – if you don’t pay your fine by the due date.
This process can be used if you’ve been ordered by a judge in court to pay a fine (for example, after being convicted of a Category 1 driving offence) and you haven’t paid the fine within the allowed time, usually four weeks (28 days).
But the process can also eventually be used if the fine is from a less serious “infringement notice”, like a parking or speeding ticket. If you haven’t paid the ticket within the time allowed by a reminder notice, the fine then gets transferred to the courts for them to enforce. From there it’s treated as if you’d been given the fine by a judge in court in the first place – you’re given another four weeks to pay, and if you don’t, the courts can take action such as seizing your property.
Before the courts decide what action to take against you to enforce the unpaid fine, the court registrar can have you brought to the court so that you can have a financial assessment.
Initial enforcement action by the courts
Seizing and selling your property
A court registrar can issue a warrant to seize your property (including a vehicle), in order to pay the fine. A collections officer or a bailiff may enter your premises, using force if necessary, and seize property belonging to you or in your possession.
If you can pay the fine when the warrant is produced, then no further action is taken.
If a bailiff or constable seizes property, they must provide a notice (in person, left in an obvious place, or by post or email) that:
- lists what they have taken, and
- directs you to tell the court within seven days whether the property taken is yours, and the name and address of anyone else with an interest in the property.
If you owe money on the property that is seized, the company to which you owe the money will be notified, if they have registered the debt on the Personal Property Securities Register.
The seized property will be sold at public auction, unless the fine is paid or another person makes a claim to the court for the property within seven days of the property being seized. Auction, storage and carrying costs will be taken from any sale proceeds and then what is left will go towards the fine. If the full amount of the fine is not covered, you will still be liable for paying the rest of the fine.
If someone else owns the property, they can make a claim to the court to have the property returned to them. They may have to pay money to the court registrar to stop the property from being sold before a judge has decided about their claim to the property. If they do not pay security money, the property can be sold but the sale proceeds will be held until the judge decides about the person’s claim to the property. The defendant can be ordered to pay the owner compensation for losses caused by having the property seized.
The courts can sometimes seize a motor vehicle even if the owner is not the driver who incurred the fines. This can happen if the owner is a “substitute” for the driver, and the owner has been warned that the defendant has not paid their fines.
Taking your pay, clamping your car, and other types of initial enforcement action
As well as seizing and selling your property, collections officers and the courts have these other options:
- Attachment order – If you don’t pay your fines or instalments on time, a court registrar or the Ministry of Justice can make an “attachment order” requiring your employer, Work and Income, the Accident Compensation Corporation, or your pension provider to take money directly from your salary, wages, benefit or ACC payments to pay the unpaid fine. These are usually regular deductions until the fine is paid in full. Your employer must not dismiss you or treat you badly because an attachment order has been made. Employers who do can be fined up to $1,000.
- Wheel clamping – Instead of seizing a vehicle, a collections officer may immobilise a vehicle by applying a wheel clamp. The vehicle will only be released when the fine is paid, or the matter is resolved in court. If the fine is not paid or resolved within 14 days of clamping, the vehicle will be seized. You can be fined up to $1,000 for tampering with a wheel clamp or a clamped vehicle.
- Deduction notice – A court registrar can issue a deduction notice requiring the defendant’s bank to deduct money from their bank account for payment of the unpaid fine.
- Charge against your home – If you have fines of $5,000 or more and you own your own home, the courts can register a “charge” against it. The charge means that if you sell the property, you have to pay the fines out of the money you get from the sale.
- Publishing your name in newspapers – If you have fines of $500 or more, and you haven’t paid anything in the last three months, and the courts can’t find you, the court registrar can arrange for your name, age and last known address to be published in the newspaper identifying you as having unpaid fines.
Note: Overdue fines and reparations can be added to your credit history, and this can make it harder for you to get credit, see the chapter “Credit and debt”.
More serious enforcement action if you still don’t pay
The courts can use more serious measures to enforce your fine if:
- the initial enforcement measures (see above) have been tried and haven’t worked, or
- they think the initial enforcement measures are unlikely to work, or
- you can’t afford to pay.
Getting a report and bringing you to court
The court registrar may make a report on your circumstances and refer the matter on to a District Court judge or community magistrate.
You can be summonsed to appear in the District Court for the court to decide what should happen about your unpaid fine.
A warrant can be issued for your arrest – for example if you can’t be found or don’t come to court when summonsed.
Note: Any person affected by a decision made by the registrar under the fine-enforcement provisions of the Summary Proceedings Act (Part 3 of the Act) can apply to a District Court judge for the order or decision to be reviewed.
Community-based sentences and other options available to the courts
The judge or community magistrate will receive the report from the court registrar on the circumstances of your case and information about your financial circumstances. They can then use one of the following options (and sometimes a combination of them):
- Seizure warrant, attachment order or deduction notice – The judge or magistrate can order one of the initial enforcement measures – namely, a warrant to seize your property, an attachment order, or a deduction notice (see above, “Initial enforcement actions by the courts”).
- Community work or community detention – A judge or community magistrate can sentence you to community work (where you work from 40 to 400 hours, under the supervision of a community probation officer) or to community detention (where you’re confined to your home under electronic monitoring during certain hours, for up to 84 hours a week).
- Prison or home detention – A judge (but not a community magistrate) can sentence you to a prison term or to home detention. You must be given the least restrictive sentence that’s appropriate for your situation, and the judge must be satisfied that all other enforcement measures were tried or considered and were unsuccessful or inappropriate.
- Charging order over your property – If you owe $5,000 or more in fines, the court can recover the amount owed in any of the ways available to creditors who have obtained a court order for payment of a debt – for example, by getting a charging order over some of your property (which can be land or other property), which stops you selling the property until the fine is paid.
- Selling your property – If you owe $50,000 or more, the judge or magistrate can order some or all of your property to be sold. This means any kind of property, including your home if you own it. Before they can do this, they have to be sure that this won’t cause “undue hardship” to you or your family.
These other options can also be used:
- Enforcement action for a smaller amount – A judge or magistrate can order a seizure warrant, attachment order or deduction notice, or a judge can impose a prison term, but for a lesser amount, so that the other part of the fine is cancelled.
- Giving you more time – The judge or magistrate can give you more time to pay the fine, but they can put conditions on this.
- A stop on enforcing the fine – The judge or magistrate can order that the fine won’t be enforced for a particular time, or won’t be enforced if you meet specific conditions.
- Cancelling (“remitting”) some or all of the fine – The judge or magistrate can cancel your fine, or some of it. This is often ordered together with a sentence of community work instead of the fine (see below).
When your fines can be cancelled (“remitted”) and replaced with community work or community detention
The powers to sentence you to community work or community detention and to cancel (remit) some or all of your fine can be used together, so that the community work or community detention sentence replaces your fine. A community work sentence has often been used in place of unpaid fines (see below).
The court can take this action on its own initiative, or you can apply to the court to have your fines replaced with community work or community detention.
The judge or community magistrate can’t substitute community detention for your unpaid fines unless a pre-sentence report has been prepared for you (see the chapter “The criminal courts”) and the Sentencing Act restrictions on using this sentence are complied with.
How many community work hours will I be given instead of the fine?
High Court, Christchurch, CRI-2005-412-13, 3 May 2005
The number of community work hours you’re likely to be sentenced to will depend not simply on the amount of your unpaid fines, but on all the circumstances of your case, including:
- the offences your fines were imposed for
- the length of time over which you accumulated the fines
- the reasons why you haven’t paid the fines
- how much you’ve paid of the total fines imposed, or the extent to which you’ve tried to pay them
- your financial and other circumstances, and
- how likely it is that you’ll pay the amount owed.
As a very general indication, the following outcomes were upheld or imposed by appeal courts in specific cases appealed from the District Court:
- 40 hours’ community work substituted for $1,115 in unpaid fines
- 100 hours for $2,730
- 240 hours for $3,222
- 300 hours for $4,000.
Can unpaid fines stop me from travelling overseas?
Yes. If you have unpaid fines of $1,000 or more or owe any amount of reparation, you may be stopped on arrival or departure at any New Zealand international airport. If a warrant has been issued you may be arrested.
The Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Customs match information, so that if you have unpaid fines, an alert will be raised at Customs when your passport is scanned.
If you are concerned about fines, you can call 0800 4 FINES (0800 434 637) to discuss your situation before departing the country.
If you are leaving New Zealand within 48 hours and believe you have overdue fines that may stop you from travelling, call 0800 PAYORSTAY (0800 729 677) at any time to pay by credit card.